Is Competition Evil?

Last Thursday, my classmates and I went to the local middle school to facilitate games with the 8th grade students. Afterwards, Christina announced she was changing her major. Stefan admitted he wanted to choke the little boy that kept yelling, “This sucks!

Back in our own school room, we slumped in our chairs defeated. I watched as the video played at the front of the classroom. The image on the screen mine. We listened quietly as I described the rules of my game to the 8th graders. Wags stopped the video and asked the class, “What did you think about those instructions? Does everyone think they could play this game?”

The answer was yes. I glanced at Stefan and he seemed to actually want to play the game. A small grin broke out momentarily on his face. There’s a reason Stefan liked my game.

Stefan was awarded a tennis scholarship. He is a competitive athlete. My game involved running, communication and a little friendly team competition.

Wags suggested the competitive nature of my game had altered the energy of our group of kids.

The game went ok actually. A quiet team of girls spelled a word first and my HulaHoop Scrabble game ended. My classmate kicked off the next game…except, the next game failed miserably and sitting there in our classroom debrief, it was suddenly implied that everything that went wrong with our team’s facilitation could be traced back to the introduction of competition.

I cussed and stewed over this notion for the next three days straight.

imageCompetition exists in biology and ecology, economics and business, politics, sports, literature, the lottery, and, education. There are stories, studies, books and interviews on the effects of competition – pro and con.

Gandhi speaks of egoistic competition. For him, such qualities glorified and/or left unbridled, can lead to violence, conflict, discord and destructiveness. In the society desired by Gandhi, each individual will coöperate and serve for the welfare of others and people will share each other’s joys, sorrows and achievements as a norm of a social life….a non-violent society where competition does not have a place.

Meanwhile, competition law, known in the United States as antitrust law, ensures….requires that there is competition in business and finds it absolutely essential in the protection of our rights as consumers.

Then I discovered Alfie.image

Alfie Kohn, author of NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition, describes the hidden costs of turning the school into a place for triumph. The problem, he argues, is not just that competition is overdone or badly handled; rather, the very win/lose structure itself has damaging consequences for how children come to see themselves, each other, and the act of learning. The alternative is not merely the absence of competition but the construction of caring communities in which people help each other to succeed.

Actually, I had read enough.

I began asking for opinions in an attempt to come to my conclusion. I’ve stared at the ceiling instead of sleeping at night, spent hours searching the internet and had countless conversations with my husband. It’s not that I want to be right. I want to know the right answer. Is competition evil?

There’s a study for that.

A recent BioMed Central study of World War II veterans has identified that the single strongest predictor of well-being in later-life was whether someone played a varsity sport in high school. These findings support a recurring theme today – regular physical activity improves quality of life and optimizes the function of brain, body, and mind throughout a lifespan.

This was encouraging, but did not specifically address the competitiveness of those high school sports.

“Whereas a focus on winning can produce anxiety, an emphasis on skills, preparation and enjoyment boosts self-esteem,” says Ronald Smith, a sports psychologist and director of the clinical psychology program at the University of Washington. He promotes the mastery mindset by teaching coaches how to emphasize positive over negative feedback and individual improvement over competition with others.

An interview with Olive, an adolescent ice skater, explains this philosophy at work in sports.

“When I’m making different mistakes, I stop and think, ‘I didn’t swing my arms back,’ or whatever it was,” says Olive. “But I get really mad at myself if I can’t figure out what I’m messing up.” Olive’s method typifies the mastery approach, says Amanda Durik, assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She’s breaking down a task and refining its components. She understands that failure is a part of learning. But if she can’t figure out how to improve, she feels frustrated.

Runners tend to employ the same approach. For some races, our goal is to test our ability to consume fluids at the proper rate or to maintain a consistent pace. Placing in the top three may or may not happen…and, it may not matter. We compete with ourselves, attempt to improve ourselves and test our limits…..through competition.

It seems our schools should provide the opportunity to experience a wide variety of things – to test personal limits in a controlled, supportive environment. Not just to prepare students for the rigors of adult life but to be in a place where they can discover their passion(s).

It’s not just about sports. Some students discover they have a passion for science and their science project takes first place every year. Maybe they find a talent for foreign languages, debate, politics, basketball or the tuba. We move from participating in these efforts to devoting ourselves to perfecting this new skill. We migrate to others who appreciate and understand these skills and test our progress…. through competition.

Is this evil or does it help us become better?

Those that choose to be competitors allow themselves to become a benchmark for others. This can be discouraging, frustrating and, at times, rewarding. In my view, it is neither good nor bad to be a competitor versus a participant. As with so many things in life, it seems this is a personal choice.

The lesson I learned last Thursday is that guiding someone through an experiential learning activity is more difficult than it may seem. With children, adults or your classmates, the process is complex and wrought with surprises.

When competition is introduced into the scenario, great care should be taken to protect individuals as they learn about and discover themselves. It is our job as parents, teachers, coaches and facilitator to make this a positive experience that helps them define for themselves whether they will become participants or competitors in life — and to help them understand that whatever choice they make is ok.

Does this answer the question regarding competition for everyone? I don’t know. It is a complicated topic as I have learned over the past few days and one we have to answer for ourselves. It has been an emotional and intense journey for me.

If you have thoughts about this topic, please leave a reply.


Related articles on the Web:

It’s not about the race.

Alfie Kohn Is Bad For You And Dangerous For Your Children

Success: Winners and Loosers

5 Lessons about Youth Sports from an Athletic Prodigy




4 thoughts on “Is Competition Evil?

  1. You were correct when you said, “There’s a Study for That”! I get suspicions when the conclusions of social science “studies” are bandied about in the popular press and cited as evidence for “truth”.

    Alfie Kohn’s view peaked with the so-called “self esteem” movement. American kids have so much “self esteem” that they actually believe they are exceptional students when it can be demonstrated by reality (i.e., comparison with academic achievement by students from other countries) that they’re not. Are we doing these youngsters any favors when we send them messages that they can “do anything – be anything” (which, btw, is actually a new merit badge for the Girl Scouts of America!)?

    When my two sons were boys, they swam in a summer league at local pools. I always dreaded the end of season banquet, when the coaches brought out a huge tray of “trophies”. Every kid got a trophy, just for participating. There may have been one or two kids singled out for “most improved”, but God forbid we should injure these precious youngsters’ self esteem by celebrating the unique accomplishments of a few!

    As Edd said above (or below, I’m not sure how these comment threads work!) the urge to compete is built into our human nature. What’s wrong with that? Competitive events and opportunities tap into out innate desire for approval and approbation, if not adulation and glory. They provide a motivation and stimulation for training, study, practice and improvement. The very act of participating on a team or as an individual in a competitive sport builds not only the skills necessary for success in the sport – it builds character.

    Douglas MacArthur is quoted as saying, about football at West Point, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, on other fields and other days, will bear the fruit of victory.”

    He was right. A person of character is not necessarily the one who is the “winner” in a competitive situation, he or she is more than likely the “loser”! Losing a competition, congratulating the winner and learning that life will go on will teach a person infinitely more than winning all the time. Failure is the best teacher. Why would we want to inoculate our kids against failure? It’s one of the reasons this millenial generation seems to be so full of expectant privilege and yet is so incompetent.

    You really got me going, Marcie! I’ll pull in on the reins for now!


  2. Competition is hard-wired into every living thing. It determines which individuals and ultimately which species survive. Civilized humans generally have the lowest rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs covered, so we have had to invent activities like sports as an outlet for our urge to compete.

    I’m glad to know my participation in high school basketball contributed to my present happiness (since our team sucked every year). But I have no interest in competition anymore because our culture’s definition of “winning” and “losing” holds no meaning for my personal sense of self worth.

    You cannot give away something you don’t have. So to hope that our leaders, teachers, and coaches can impart knowledge and understanding to others that they themselves haven’t mastered is an idealistic dream.


    1. I hear what you’re saying. It is a vicious cycle. At least there are finally some out there that seem to want to try. Maybe focus helps brings about change. And sometimes, the grain runs too deep. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.


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